A threesome determined to make it work

7th July 1995 at 01:00
Primary schools are increasingly coming together in pursuit of common problems and interests. These groups commonly have at least a dozen or so members, partly because they are seeking economies of scale in areas such as purchasing and in-service provision, writes Gerald Haigh. That there may, however, be a role for much smaller groups - perhaps working within larger ones and certainly not competing with them - is demonstrated by Triad, an alliance of three Hertfordshire primary heads - Michael Connell of St Peter's Primary in St Albans, Alisdair Skinner of Hurst Drive JMI in Waltham Cross and Martin Tuck of Fairfields JMI in Cheshunt.

Triad (the name started as a joke, but it stuck) is a formally defined link which enables the three heads to work together on common management problems and, importantly, to buy in the part-time support of a management consultant. The aim, essentially, is to save management time by preventing the continuous reinvention of the wheel. Martin Tuck, who had the original idea, says that primary heads receive virtually identical postbags from their authorities and the Department for Education, and have many identical or parallel management decisions - such as setting the school budget.

There are other common areas too, from school brochures and standard letters to major policies on, for example, health and safety. And even where individual schools have differing approaches, it is often possible to identify a basic framework that can be shared. Consultant Alan Craig, who acts as part-time professional assistant to Triad, finds that the management concerns are so alike that "it's difficult to see things that don't have common possibilities".

None of this, in principle, will be news to the average primary head, who is accustomed to phoning any of two or three colleagues around the town for advice and support and to beg copies of missing paperwork. Triad, indeed, started from just such an informal arrangement - the three heads are personal friends who met occasionally in a pub to share ideas and problems.

The difference is that 18 months ago Martin Tuck decided that it was time to make the arrangement more formal and to hold some meetings in school time - twice a term in the first instance. Then, as it became clear that a major feature of the meetings was the sharing of draft documents, the three bought fax machines and laptop computers with the same software. But they realised that they were often not able to cover promised ground, and were coming back together to find that deadlines had been missed. The answer was to employ Alan Craig.

A former employee of the authority, he acts for 50 days a year as a professional assistant to Triad, minuting meetings and taking away draft documents for updating and circulation. He also checks documents and policies against legal requirements.

The most tangible outcome so far from Triad is that all three schools now have robust and well-documented policies in many of the major areas of curriculum and management. One of the policies - on risk assessment and health and safety - is now marketed nationally by Triad Publications. This is a clear pointer to future possibilities - work is going on now on a staff handbook and on a "global planner" that brings together and charts every aspect of school life. The income generated from such projects is helping to offset the cost of buying Alan Craig's time.

Could other primary heads work in this way? Triad members suggest that the critical factors are: * A lively partnership based on existing professional friendship. Their view is that three is exactly the right number.

* The schools should be similar but not have adjoining catchment areas - any element of competition would introduce a wrong note.

At the same time, they are quick to disclaim any idea that they have found the complete answer to primary management. "It works for us," is their common refrain. So, for example, although this group relies heavily on the skills of Alan Craig, another Triad in another place, would develop its own way of working, using whichever outside skills are available or affordable.

Risk Assessment and the School Health and Safety Policy, Pounds 49.99, inc. disc and postage. From St Peter's Primary School, Cottonmill Lane, St Albans, Herts AL1 1HL. Fax orders to 01727 868842.

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